By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
The solitary figure in an austere landscape is the emblem of Rockwell Kent’s rugged individualism. Kent’s work is homage to the mystic power and beauty found in both man and nature. The “elemental” reigned supreme in the artist’s view of life, nature, and his art. One familiar example of this theme is the bookplate he designed for the Warner Library about 1947. A man stands, book in hand, near the crest of a hill; the wide Tappan Zee and the hills of Nyack lie in the background. This image and Kent’s distinctive artistic style were etched into my memory from the time I first borrowed a book from the Warner Library as a young child. As I recall, there was a time when Kent’s bookplate was pasted into the endpaper of nearly every book in the library.
The scenes of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown are no match for the stark drama of Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, Newfoundland, and Greenland, which fills much of Kent’s work, but these Hudson Valley hills served as the artist’s spiritual incubator. The man was a set of contradictions, a sociable introvert, a cantankerous sentimentalist, a mix of Victorian formality and radical non-conformity, an avowed socialist whose patrons included corporations and the wealthy. This strange mix would lead to a kind of artistic and political rejection during his lifetime; some might call it a suicide, others a crucifixion.
Young Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent was born in Pocantico Hills on June 21, 1882 in the gatehouse of the Grosvenor Lowery estate, “Solitude.” Kent’s father, Rockwell Kent, Sr., was a young partner in Lowery’s prestigious law firm. Kent’s mother, Sarah Ann Holgate, was the estranged adoptive daughter of James Banker, a very wealthy associate of Commodore Vanderbilt. Kent wrote in his book, It’s Me O Lord (1955), that his parents met at the Lowery estate when James Banker asked his adoptive daughter to accompany him at a meeting with Lowery and Thomas Edison, regarding one of Edison’s inventions. The Lowery estate was near the end of Copcutt Road in Pocantico Hills. Sarah grew up amid the luxuries of the Banker estate which was located next to Sunnyside, but she thwarted her adoptive father’s wishes when she chose to marry Rockwell Kent, Sr.
It is not clear whether Sarah was a formally adopted by Banker. Sarah Holgate’s parents were still living, but she was sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle, James and Josephine Banker. The Bankers’ son had died in childhood. Sarah recalled that Mrs. Banker would have preferred taking in her younger sister, Ellen Josephine Holgate (the artist’s “Auntie Jo”). James H. Banker was vice president of the Bank of New York and an associate of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the formation of the New York Central Railroad, among other projects.
The Kents were married in New York on July 17, 1881. Rockwell Kent, Sr. had been born in Brooklyn in 1853 and was to become a partner in the firm of Lowery, Stone, and Auerbach. A year after the artist’s birth, the Kent family purchased a neo-Tudor house on Cobb Lane at the east corner of Oak Avenue where they lived affluently. Kent later wrote, “What home, sweet home that was to us!” When Kent was five, his father died of typhoid fever after returning from a business trip to Honduras. This left Sarah Kent with three children (Rockwell, Douglas, and Dorothy) and no income. Ironically, she would have inherited half a fortune two years earlier had she remained on good terms with her now-deceased adoptive father, James Banker. Banker had died in 1885, and Rockwell Kent later asserted that his mother had once actually been written into Banker’s will as heir to half his estate. According to Scharf’s history of Westchester County, Banker was said to be one of the wealthiest men in New York prior to the Panic of 1873. The Banker mansion and estate had previously belonged to Moses Hicks Grinnell (d. Nov. 1878) who was married to a niece of Washington Irving.
Sarah’s family was regularly exposed to the grudging patronage of her widowed adoptive mother, Josephine Banker. Kent wrote that Mrs. Banker was, “more… a niggardly patroness of poor relations than a woman reunited to a niece who had for years been as a daughter. Clara Ann Holgate, Sarah Kent’s natural mother, came to help with the household and the raising of the children.
From Rockwell Kent’s illustrated version of Moby Dick
The Kent household was reduced to a kind of gentile poverty, but Rockwell was nonetheless sent to private schools. He recalled lonely early years; his mother did not want him to socialize with children from town, and few other peers availed themselves. He excelled in penmanship and mechanical drawing. At ten years of age, he was sent to a “strict” boarding school in Sleepy Hollow. Dr. John M. Furman had taken over the Irving Institute at the corner of Elm and Pocantico Streets in 1891. Kent recalled, “I don’t think it was much of a school, either by what it stood for or what […] it accomplished.” On Sundays the Kents attended services at Christ Church in Tarrytown. There, Rockwell took Sunday school lessons with Mr. Humphreys, the cashier of Tarrytown National Bank.
By 1893 it appears that the Kents’ Cobb Lane house had changed hands. Whether the family continued to live there as tenants or moved to some other house in the neighborhood is unclear. In 1895, at the age of thirteen, Kent boarded at Horace Mann School in New York. That summer his mother’s sister, “Jo” Holgate, a talented amateur artist, invited him to Europe for an art tour that included London, Dresden, and The Hague. Ellen Josephine Holgate was once an art student of Abbott Thayer. According to Scott R. Ferris, she introduced Kent to Thayer and also arranged for Kent’s first one-man show at Clausen Galleries in New York. Ferris’ essay, “Generations: The Artistic Heritage of Rockwell Kent,” provides an interesting examination of artistic impulse and practice among Kent’s descendants; Resource Library Magazine, November 18, 2002.
Two years after his European trip with Auntie Jo, Rockwell Kent was helping to augment family finances by hand-painting ceramics, a technique he learned in Dresden with Aunt Jo. The pieces were sold at the Tarrytown Woman’s Exchange.
In the summer of 1898, the teenager found work under the kind and guiding hand of William Humphreys, his erstwhile Sunday school teacher. Kent was paid three dollars per week as a summer worker at the Tarrytown National Bank, corner of Orchard and Main. In his 1955 autobiography he recalls, “Typewriters and adding machines may at that time have been in general use, but not in Tarrytown.” One day the sixteen year old was asked to deliver a stack of papers to the village treasurer on Main Street. Kent managed to lose several thousand dollars of negotiable coupons on his two-block journey. Although the coupons were later recovered, the incident cast a gloom on the youth’s banking prospects.
The Tarrytown home Sarah Kent had built about 1904, Photo, Henry John Steiner.
In 1900 Kent won a four-year scholarship to Columbia University’s School of Architecture, but he would not finish his course of study there. In 1903 Sarah Kent received a small inheritance from her former adoptive mother, more than enough to build a house, still standing, at 209 Wilson Park Drive in Tarrytown; the house was completed in 1904. The design of the house involved an architect friend of Kent’s named Ewing; the commission was said to have launched Ewing’s firm Ewing and Chappell, where Kent earned some money as a draughtsman.
Kent shares details of a chance encounter about this time with John D. Rockefeller, Sr., his “next-door neighbor once removed.” The young man was walking his mare toward the Rockefeller trails and happened to pass the richest man in the world while he was in the act of putting on one of his golf greens. Rockefeller looked up and said, “Will you please get off the grass.” Kent observes that the request, though politely framed, was clearly a command. Coincidentally, it was in 1904 that the artist attended his first socialist meeting, joining one of the two socialist “locals” in Tarrytown. It was also in 1904 that Kent sold his first painting.
Garage apartment built by Kent behind house of Sarah Kent, about 1937. Photo, Henry John Steiner.
The budding artist studied under a number of masters, summers with William Merritt Chase (1900-1903), Abbot Thayer (1903), and Robert Henri (1905). It was Henri who invited the artist to Monhegan Island, ten miles off the coast of Maine, where Kent would remain for most of the next six years, painting, lobstering, and running an art school. In 1908, he married Kathleen Whiting, a relation of artist Abbott Thayer. Kent and Whiting would have five children together: Rockwell III (b.1909), Kathleen (b.1911), Clara (b.1913), Barbara (b.1915), and Gordon (b.1920). In 1914, the family settled briefly in Newfoundland, but Kent’s penchant for flaunting his fluency in German, learned in childhood from an Austrian nanny, got him deported.
Rockwell Kent was divorced twice and married three times. His wives were Kathleen Whiting (1908-1925), Francis Lee (1926-1939), and Shirley (Sally) Johnstone (1940). Kent was an avid traveler, but in 1927 established a permanent homestead on a farm in AuSable, New York. Kent’s small-scale commercial dairy farm (200 acres) was named Asgaard Farm. His political views led to a boycott that resulted in Kent’s transfer of the dairy business to the farm’s employees in 1948. The house was destroyed by fire in 1969 and rebuilt. Buying the AuSable farm and home did not deter Kent from sailing himself to Greenland in 1929 and surviving a shipwreck on its cold and desolate shore. He traveled there on two other occasions in the 1930s.
Kent’s Bookplate for the Warner Library
Kent’s mother died in 1947, the year she presented the Warner Library with Kent’s bookplate mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece. It is not clear how much time in the intervening years he spent in Tarrytown. One source tells us that in 1937 he built an apartment for his daughter, Clara, behind his mother’s Wilson Park home; Clara was apparently the only one of Kent’s children to live locally. After the death of Sarah Kent, Clara and her husband, Charles A. Pearce (a partner in the publishing firm of Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, one of Kent’s publishers), moved with their two daughters to 145 Neperan Road in Tarrytown. The house was previously owned by “Auntie Jo” Holgate. (Holgate was already living there in 1915 according to a local directory.) The Neperan Road house was sold in 1971. We find that Kent’s daughter Clara died locally in 1975, at 40 Pintail Road. It appears that in 2003 Clara’s daughter, Ellen, was an artist living in Missouri; she was raised in Tarrytown and at one time alluded to a severing of relations between her mother and her grandfather, Rockwell Kent. Sarah Kent’s house on Wilson Park Drive was bought by the James Buckley family and then by the Philip Dodge family, who sold it in 1989.
“Auntie Jo” Holgate’s house on Neperan Road, later occupied by
the family of Clara Kent Pearson. Photo, Henry John Steiner.
In 1948, Rockwell Kent ran as a congressional candidate for the National Labor Party. In 1950, the U. S. government revoked his passport, and in 1953 he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A protracted court battle ensued, resulting in a 1958 Supreme Court decision to reinstate Kent’s passport. Two years later the defiant artist donated a major collection of his work to the Soviet Union.
“After many years of declining reputation in this country and unsuccessful attempts to find a home for the Kent Collection, Kent gave his unsold paintings—the majority of his oeuvre—to the Soviet Union, where he continued to be immensely popular.” This according to archivists Catherine Stover and Lisa Lynch, “A Finding Aid to the Rockwell Kent Papers, ca. 1840-1993, in the Archives of American Art.” The Kent Collection is said to include more than 80 paintings and 800 watercolors.
In 1967, Rockwell Kent was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. He died in Plattsburgh, New York, in 1971, and was buried at Asgaard Farm. Kent was a prolific artist and writer. His papers are deposited in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. One of his paintings hangs in The Warner Library at Tarrytown.
Winter scene of Asgaard Farm
©2006-2016 Henry John Steiner